Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

September 6, 2013

Ashland welcomes WWII ship

Mike James
The Independent

ASHLAND — Denizens of smaller craft like the LST called it the dungaree navy, said Jerry Chapman.

Crewmen wore the blue denim pants and chambray shirts rather than the smarter-looking cotton uniforms favored on larger warships, he said.

But the uniforms were appropriate, since there is nothing glamorous about an LST — Landing Ship, Tank, that is — the main function of which is to speed straight toward shore, ram its bow right up onto the beach, open its massive bow doors and belch out tanks and trucks and soldiers. In fact, the first ones were placed into action without guns, Chapman said, because naval planners intended each boat for a single landing.

If you are among those who visit the LST 325, the World War II amphibious vessel docked at the Ashland waterfront through Monday, crew members like Chapman are likely to volunteer similar bits of information even if you don’t ask.

That is because the crew members, most of them naval veterans and many having served their hitches on other such ships, genuinely love the vessel on which they spend so many volunteer hours and want others to know more about the vital role the amphibious craft played in the invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe.

Chapman, of Albuquerque, served on LST 692 — the strictly utilitarian vessels didn’t have names, just numbers — during the Korean war.

Following a ceremony Thursday morning on the ship’s main deck, visitors began filing in through the big doors, into the cavernous hold designed to carry 20 Sherman tanks, and from there to other parts of the ship, including crewmen’s quarters, the wheelhouse, the captain’s cabin and anti-aircraft gun tubs.

On each side of the ship, suspended from davits near the stern, are smaller landing craft called Higgins boats used to ferry Marines to shore during invasions. Visitors who linger long enough are likely to run into Irwin T. Kuhns, who was stationed on board LST 716 during World War II and piloted a Higgins boat that took 36 fully-armed Marines at a time to the shores of Iwo Jima.

The ungainly flat-bottomed boats were capable of cruising in at 15 mph, Kuhns said. “I’d run right up and bang, drop the door right on the beach. All the people I took in never got their feet wet. They never had to swim for it.”

Kuhns remembers one bit of good-natured inter-service rivalry between him and the Marines he dropped off in the thick of enemy gunfire: “They’d tell me while they were running onto the beach I was turning around and going the opposite direction. I told them I’d be coming back with more,” he said.

The LST 325 cruises for a month each autumn, making stops in towns along the river. In addition, many of the crew, who are all volunteers, commit to work weeks in the spring and fall, said John Noonan of Weatherly, Pa., who is the chief cook — thus the most important man on board, he jokes — and who was a deckhand on LST 983 from 1961 to 1964.

He has been involved with the ship for eight years and enjoys the work, even though it can require crew members to get up at about 5 a.m. and work until around 7 p.m. “It’s definitely a labor of love,” he said.

Deckhand Paul Heintz of Peoria is one of the newer crew members, having been volunteering for two years, and said he is drawn to the World War II era. “It’s a thrill to work in this ship, a unique piece of history,” he said.

Unique is almost literally true. The ship is one of only two remaining operational LSTs, and is now owned and operated by the nonprofit LST Memorial Inc. as a museum. Its home port is Evansville, Ind., the site of one of three shipyards where the vessels were built.

The autumn tours help raise awareness and, just as important, money to keep the aging vessel afloat and shipshape, said Capt. Robert Jornlin, a naval veteran who served on an LST from 1961 to 1969.

The ship is expensive to operate, drinking about seven gallons of diesel fuel per mile, he said.

The approximately 40 crew members are all volunteers, he said. “We get paid well in the tears we see in the eyes of veterans,” he said.

Jornlin also believes young people gain a new respect for military service when they board the boat and learn its history.

The ship will remain at the riverfront through Monday. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and tours are self-guided. There are three sets of stairs.

Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for ages 6 through 17. Children 5 and younger are free. A family admission price of $20 covers two adults and two minor children. Special rates and guided tours are available for school groups.

For more information, visit lstmemorial.org.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or

(606) 326-2652.